Political theater is a challenging balancing act, one that requires a creative team to tread a thin line stretched precariously high – which is to say, getting a potentially controversial or divisive message across to audience members efficiently, while still satisfying the urge for cultured diversion that drew them into the house in the first place. How audacious a creator must be, then, to attempt a feat so risky in the opera house, where comparatively little precedent exists for successful activist art, and to which a whiff of bourgeois affectation clings even when it’s not justified.
Does The Hunger qualify as successful activist art? I’ve been thinking about this new work by the remarkable Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy, which received its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, for days now, and I remain undecided, which likely means it succeeded more than most.
Directed by Tom Creed and billed as an “opera” – don’t blame BAM; this was a co-production with the gutsy Opera Theater of St. Louis, which mounted the world premiere in September after a Kennedy Center preview in June – this tuneful yet terse rumination on the great Irish famine of 1845-52 was custom built for Alarm Will Sound, a chamber ensemble known for being stylistically omnivorous and physically versatile. (The present work is a thorough revision of an earlier work introduced in 2014.)
Two vocalists were featured in what might be described more accurately as a choreographed multimedia cantata. Katherine Manley, an English soprano, portrayed Asenath Nicholson, an American teacher, traveler, and writer whose Annals of the Famine in Ireland served as Dennehy’s source. Lending voice to the travails and passions of the afflicted population was Iarla Ó Lionáird, the esteemed Irish sean-nós (“old style”) singer who collaborated previously with Alarm Will Sound in Dennehy’s penetrating concert piece Grá Agus Bás.
The singers – Manley compassionately delivering Nicholson’s account of depredations suffered by starving country folk; Ó Lionáird intoning prayerful wishes and laments in a tone saturated with ache – performed on a diagonally tilted platform strewn with grass, rocks, and sod, flanked on both sides by clusters of Alarm Will Sound players, with Alan Pierson conducting stage left. Overhead on a wide video screen, cloudy skies brooded over a distant horizon.
The words Manley sang, describing visions close to unbearable and sometimes crossing the line, were projected on a downstage platform. Five smaller video screens scattered across the stage offered further details of landscape and translations of Ó Lionáird’s Gaelic plaints, interrupted regularly by video interview segments with contemporary historians and economists – Noam Chomsky, Paul Krugman, Megan Vaughan, Branko Milanovic, and Maureen Murphy – who link the historic famine to market-driven English economic strategies, and draw parallels to more modern instances of similar practices. (Their words, too, were projected on the downstage screen, a distinct boon.)
The mix of competing sensations, which could verge on sensory overload – occasionally to no evident gain, as when Alarm Will Sound players rose and ventured out onto the set – was jarring and no doubt meant to be, given the subject matter. Yet Dennehy’s instrumental writing provided a sure adhesive, combining aspects derived from the music of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Bang on a Can, Gérard Grisey, and more in a manner that supported disparate voices. In emotionally vulnerable moments solo instruments subtly shadowed vocal lines, caressing them tenderly. Yet throughout The Hunger, microtonal frictions sown into otherwise consonant foundations were a master stroke: sour-milk disharmonies disrupting rustic calm, conjuring unease and decay.
With so much going for The Hunger – Dennehy’s inventive score; intense commitment from Manley and Ó Lionáird; vitality and confidence from Alarm Will Sound; Jim Findlay’s handsome set; Christopher Kuhl’s evocative lighting; a deft audio mix by Daniel Neumann – it seems strange to still have misgivings about the work’s efficacy. That the music was powerful and affecting was not in question – yet the video segments could feel disruptive and overbearing in their increasing proliferation and stridency, particularly since the clips seemed less integrated into the music than laid over it, like a DVD commentary track.
As much a concern, given the presentation of so fervent a political position, were nagging questions of a more personal nature. Was an audience member meant to come away from The Hunger inspired to take action? Would the work likely have changed the mind of anyone whose general views were more sympathetic to free-market economics, who surely number among operatic audience members?
Those questions seem germane, and don’t necessarily have answers that will apply for everyone. Then again, that such issues continue to linger and resonate well after a performance has transpired might construe in itself some measure of successful artistic activism.